‘The Condition of Secrecy’ Teems With Love for Language and the Natural World

Posted November 20, 2018 4:02 p.m. EST

After she received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2009, German novelist Herta Müller said there had been a mistake. She insisted the award should have gone to her friend Inger Christensen, a Danish writer who had died earlier that year.

“I wouldn’t have minded waiting. I could have received it later, or perhaps not at all,” Müller said in a television interview several years later, her eyes red-rimmed, her grief still raw. “Now they’ve let Inger die.”

Christensen was a wellspring of Scandinavian experimental writing, a magus of poetry and philosophy whose lines live on as graffiti, trailed across buildings in Copenhagen. Her work was full of cunning and wonder, sex and sea urchins, mathematics and logical puzzles. “Alphabet,” her best-known collection, is structured according to the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number in a series is the sum of the previous two numbers; so each poem expands, from two lines to three to five and so on.

“The numerical ratios exist in nature,” she explained. “The way a leek wraps around itself from the inside, and the head of a sunflower, are both based on this series.”

While Christensen won numerous literary awards in Europe, and was routinely named a contender for the Nobel, breaking into the United States proved difficult. It took 20 years for “alphabet” to find a publisher. But a new book of essays, “The Condition of Secrecy,” has just been published here, translated by Susanna Nied, and provides welcome context for her poetry.

The collection is slim and heady. Like all her writing, it aims to be a history of no less than everything: the origins of the stars and our souls, the beauty of fractals and of third-century Chinese poetry. It is a book about eating strawberries, witch-burning and the challenge that the soft, scumbled sides of clouds pose to geometry. It’s about standing in the garden and watching yellow slugs “moving like slow flames” in sunlight. Poet and classicist Anne Carson has said that Christensen’s omnivorous impulse is matched only by the early Greek poet Hesiod.

Christensen was a cosmophage, as writer Wayne Koestenbaum described Susan Sontag — a world-eater. She was trained in German, mathematics, medicine and the violin; she read six modern languages and two ancient ones. She could explain the life cycle of rare freshwater sponges in dramatic detail.

But her intellectual avidity came coupled with mischief, worldliness and generosity. “We as human beings are not only able to imagine a condition of ongoing want, but are also able to maintain this condition of want and moreover to call it life,” she wrote in an essay on chance (by way of a short history of the redwing thrush and a few remarks on anagrams).

It’s a hectic kind of erudition that could easily seem showy, but in these essays we experience it as a kind of abundance, an outpouring of love for the world. Nied’s clean, musical translation helps. There is nothing knotty, nothing strained. The arguments radiate outward with the measured rhythm of ripples in water. Christensen herself repeatedly compares writing to other kinds of natural phenomena: “I had the same ‘right’ to produce language that a tree has to produce leaves”; “We can find comfort in imagining that it’s possible to write as easily as frost creates its repetitions and variation on a windowpane.”

It’s not that writing came easily to her — in fact, some of the best pieces in this book are about its nauseating difficulty. But she connects it to other forms of inquiry: “Poetry is just one of human beings’ many ways of recognizing things, and the same schism runs through each of the other ways, be it philosophy, mathematics or the natural sciences.”

However original Christensen’s insights, the book has been published shabbily. There is no mention of where these essays first appeared, or when. Reading an interview with Nied, I was startled to learn that several of them were first written in German, and that Christensen had translated them into Danish herself, which is never noted. Nor is there any introduction or any effort to explore how these essays work alongside the poems.

It’s a shame — not least because Christensen deserves to be championed, not merely published. It feels like an additional disservice given how passionate she was about context and hidden continuities. In the book’s best essay, she investigates the parts of speech as tools for understanding the universe and our place in it. “All nouns are very lonely,” she writes. “They’re like crystals, each enclosing its own little piece of our knowledge about the world.” All adjectives are helpless (“they have to cling to all the nouns they can find”). Adverbs are stubborn but verbs are agreeable (“they shift, change identity and undo every noun’s loneliness for a while”).

The essay feels inspired by Gertrude Stein’s playful meditations on language. (“Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are,” Stein wrote in her essay “Poetry & Grammar.” “I said I found this out first in listening to Basket my dog drinking. And anybody listening to any dog’s drinking will see what I mean.”) But there’s a larger point being made, one that Christensen keeps turning over, like a Rubik’s cube. If there is a part of speech she is partial to, it is the preposition — the invisible and all-important part that signals where we are in relation to one another. According to her, we’re all muddled on this score; we think of those markers of humanity — language, consciousness, art — as being ways of perceiving (or depicting) nature, not as its products. What would it mean to have a greater sense of identification with the world, she wonders. What would it do to our sentences, our sense of ourselves and how we conceive of our obligations to the environment?

Is it such a far-fetched proposition, that “language can’t be separated from the world without separating the world from itself”? Not to Christensen; we’ve been there before. “When I was 9 years old, the world, too, was 9 years old,” she writes. “At least there was no difference between us, no opposition, no distance. We just tumbled around from sunrise to sunset, body and earth as alike as two pennies.”

Publication Notes:

“The Condition of Secrecy: Selected Essays”

By Inger Christensen

Translated by Susanna Nied

137 pages. New Directions. $16.95.